West Coast senators lead bipartisan bid to save Sea Grant program from Trump

A key senior Republican senator has joined Democrats in seeking to save the National Sea Grant Program, used as a tool by the University of Washington and schools in 31 states to keep oceans healthy and fisheries sustainable.

The $73 million program, important to coastal towns on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts, is marked for elimination in President Trump’s FY 2018 budget. 

The effort to save it is spearheaded by two West Coast senators, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

“Sea Grant plays a vital role in Alaska and throughout our coastal communities, with the programs combining essential aspects of applied research, communication, extension and education,” said Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Last year alone, Alaska Sea Grant programs accomplished great things, from pioneering health research through a study documenting fisherman health habits and chronic health challenges in the fishing industry, to encouraging environmental literacy through our Alaska Seas and Watersheds school grants.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has joined Murkowski and Merkley in a bipartisan resolution backing the embattled program.

Sea Grant money in Washington is used to research such subjects as oil spill prevention and ocean acidification, and for outreach programs in schools.

Washington Sea Grant supports local communities and businesses to the tune of nearly $9 million in economic benefits to the state.

“We collaborate to manage fisheries sustainability, and restore and protect our coastlines to support critical maritime jobs and economic activities in our coastal regions,” Lisa Graumlich, dean of the UW College of the Environment, said last month.

“Washington Sea Grant is a vital component of this partnership because of their mandate to serve Washington’s marine based businesses and coastal communities.”

Nationally, say Murkowski and Merkley, Sea Grant works to create or sustain more than 20,000 jobs and 2,900 businesses, estimating its economic impact in 2015 at $575 million — from an investment that year of just $67.3 million.

“The Sea Grant program is a textbook example of a smart and targeted investment in local communities that helps create economic growth,” Merkley said. “Our coastal communities are a key part of our economy in Oregon and numerous other states.

“At a time when coastal ecosystems and infrastructure are under unique stress from a changing climate, it would be a terrible idea to cut back on support that will help our communities adapt and continue to thrive and create jobs.”

Cosponsors of the Murkowski-Merkley resolution range from outspoken environmentalist Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii to a conservative oil industry ally, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

The Sea Grant program, and marine research it pays for, was a cherished cause of three “lions of the Senate” and giants of West Coast politics,, Republican Sens. Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Ted Stevens of Alaska, and Democratic Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington.

Each of the three chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee, and each brought home dollars for marine research.